Recently I’ve realized quite a significant difference between planning a visit to a city and to nature. Prior to travelling to an urban destination, I consciously raise my expectations. I imagine vividly the streets and main landmarks I’ve seen on the internet and set myself up to compare the sights with those I’ve already seen.
On the contrary, planning a trip to the woods, to the mountains or to a beach is more relaxed. More curious. Less planned. It also lacks almost any anticipations. I’ve been asking myself “why this difference?” and the only reason I can come up with is that it’s maybe because it’s more natural to judge something that was created by humans. Nature, on the other hand, is something original, resistant to the pressure of worldwide trends and not competing with anything. Until the moment when we, humans, decide to accommodate it to our ‘taste’ and needs.
In the cities I always have the feeling that I have to look for something interesting because otherwise I would be bored. In nature, I willingly surrender to irregular shapes of trees, “messy” ground full of old, moldy leaves hidden below the soft moss of saturated green, broken branches and plants whose tops always bend towards the sun, beaches with kitschy, pinky sunsets or humid, lush jungle where it’s hard to follow your thoughts because of the raucous crickets.
When we entered the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park in the Catalonia region, wild rocky slopes with hundreds of pieces of stones that rolled down from the high peaks and mingled with pine trees welcomed us with neat grass on both sides of the hiking path.
I’m sure that the bright sunny day played a big role. The green of the grass was greener, the grey of the rocks turned into silver and the brown of the trees modified into different shades of orange and red tones on the bark of the trees.
Oh, the trees. Hundreds of years old firs and Spanish pines were laying down undisturbed. While drying, getting rotten and becoming one with the ground, they gave homes to thousands of ants’ houses. No one cared to remove those old broken trees and no one ever will.
The mindful and well educated director of the park, Jose Maria Rispa, would never allow that. As he proudly explains, the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is special because “the beauty and the conservation of the park is better than the others in Europe.”
Well, you don’t argue about that with a passionate professional.
One of the main reasons why the park is so unique is a low number of visitors, as tourism in the Lleida Pyrenees in Spain has started only recently. Besides, big cities are 2-3 hours by car from the park, thus many people don’t consider this part of the Pyrenees as a holiday destination.
However, a serious bonus of the only national park in Catalonia is the fact that the area is family friendly (no demanding climbing into the high altitude) and they happily welcome disabled travelers who can visit the park via flat wooden path.
In August, they can receive 20,000 visitors, while in winter the number rapidly decreases only to 300. In total, about 500, 000 visitors visit the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park per year.
One of the principal highlights of the park are flowers and since you’re only allowed to walk in the park, it’s easy to spot some of 1,500 different species of flowers there (if they aren’t covered by snow that is in the park for six months out of the year).
The vegetation of the high altitude is very flexible, therefore resistant from strong wind and snow so branches don’t break easily.
Preserving the uniqueness of the place includes also some restrictions. You can reach the entrance of the park by car, by bike or by 4×4. To continue, you go only on foot. No other activities besides hiking and climbing are allowed in the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park.
These restrictions weren’t common until the end of the 80’s of the last century, when the park became owned by the Catalonian government. Thanks to the change of the owner, the budget was increased and more professionals arrived together with stricter laws, including limited use of hydroelectric power, which started to be exploited in the area.
The head and the heart of the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park
Lleida is the head of the Pyrenees. Mr. Jose Maria is the head and the heart of the park. He’s extremely ardent about educating visitors about the cycle of life of the forest. “Nature can help us to understand the cycle of life in the cities, to create a parallel between the life in nature and make us live better in our normal lives”, he tells.
The message he aims to spread is to pay the same respect to your environment at home as you do in the national park.
If you think that rubbish is the only issue the park faces, you would be wrong.
Apart from that there are actually no litter bins (because of the strong wind and “hungry” animals), the first few years after the park was opened, visitors were complaining about not being able to enter the park with a car, for being forbidden to camp inside and … they were irritated about the dead trees around, blaming the staff for being lazy not to “clean” the park properly.
Jose Maria explains: “I try to break man’s egoism. People look at nature from a human perspective. A man considers nature as something different from him, not understanding that he’s nature himself, that we’re one.” So much truth in that.
Old trees live their whole lives until the very end in the park. They grow up there, arrive to the stage of reproduction, they die in the park, and in the park they decompose. “There’s no perfect forest with nice trees”, says Jose Maria. “This is a perfect forest” and he points to dead and broken trees next to him with sparks in his eyes.
Practical info when visiting the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park
The best places to arrive in the Lleida Pyrenees: Vall de Boí (from here it’s easier to enter the park and the terrain is flatter) or Espot (it’s easier to arrive here from bigger cities, but you’ll find a higher altitude here.)
A 4×4 taxi to the entrance of the park: $11. Booking: in the tourism office in Vall de Boí.
Hiring a professional guide is possible.
From one side to the other of the park it takes 10 hours of hiking.
If you’re planning your active vacation in the area, consider checking out Purely Pyrenees. They offer some great walking and cycling holidays in the Pyrenees in all four seasons!
The best treks:
Some of the best and most scenic trekking trails are Camídels Enamorats (Lovers’ Trail),
Roca de la Cremada (Rock of the Burned), Estany Llong ( Long Pool), Tomb a l’Estany de Sant Maurici pel Mirador i Amithes.
For more trekking paths in the Pyrenees, you can check the official website with lots of useful information and a special application ARALLEIDA 365 for your mobile phone.
Not to miss in the Lleida Pyrenees
If you start your trip to the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park from Vall de Boí, make sure to spare some time for exploring the Romanesque art and architecture of the town. There you’ll find a group of Romanesque-style churches that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Don’t miss the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, where you can watch a unique multimedia presentation of the history of the church and its frescos in the church interior.
The natural elements don’t sleep. Strong winds, unexpected eruptions, frequent heavy rain storms and floods work upon the earth slowly. The result of the natural processes and actions (or “disasters”, as we, humans, like to call them) can be seen within a few hours or … centuries.
One perfect example of the latter: the Mont-rebei Gorge in Montsec massif in the Catalan Pre-Pyreness. The area of about 600 acres is a “mirror kingdom”. Imposing, rocky cliffs multiply their beauty in the transparent waters of the River Noguera Ribagorçana and while looking into the clear waters of the river, you lose the sense of orientation.
Which is the surface of the river and which is the real bottom of the cliff above? Are the colours real or is it all just an elusive game of nature?
Sadly, this natural beauty has been facing some human conflicts. In the last few years, villagers have been protecting the gorge from the building of an electric station there which has become a serious problem in the area.
Rarely can we see a bright night sky full of stars when living in a city. But, the further from the artificial urban lights you go, the higher chances of observing the Universe above you’ll get.
Well, unless the Universe decides to cover all the stars with thick clouds right at the day you’re supposed to visit the Montsec Astronomy Park (PAM) and its two main attractions: the Centre for Observing the Universe (COU) and the Montsec Astronomic Observatory (OAdM).
You’re guessing right. We weren’t the lucky ones who could see the full potential of the centre.
We saw the star world only on the computer screens in the observatory, which left us daydreaming about mysterious star constellations and planets we know so little about.
Montsec Astronomy Park is the third place in the world to have been designated a Starlight Reserve and sixth to be recognized as a Starlight Touristic Destination. Plan your trip to PAM wisely and do check the weather before booking an appointment.
You won’t experience the fire in the Pyrenees literally, but your blood will definitely get hotter and your pulse will beat at racing speed when you visit one of the adventurous parks in the Lleida region.
You can get your fitness level tested, as well as face all of your fears in Naturan adventure park in Les. Despite that we’d already had one experience with a forest park in Finland, there was still a lot to figure out while hanging on a tree, crossing a swinging bridge and flying on a fantastic zip line at the end.
Note: A big shout out to Lina from Divergent Travellers who stood behind me and guided me with a few tricks on how to cross some obstacles without panicking or giving up at all!
How to arrive to the Lleida Pyrenees
In case you aren’t traveling in the Lleida Pyrenees by car, you can arrive there either by train (www.renfe.com), by plane (www.aerroportlleida.cat) or by bus (tel: +34 973 268 500).
Eight cozy rooms with good WIFI and spectacular views of the valley and Montsec Ager mountain range.
Price: From $92 for a double room in high season.
Hotel La Placa en Erill la Vall
Plaza de la Iglesia, 1
25528 Erill la Vall, Lleida
Contact : 00 34 973 69 60 26
A hotel located opposite Santa Eulalia church in Vall de Boí, ideal when heading to the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park .
Price: From $60 for a double room in high season
Petitsaüc Apartaments Turístics
255 28 Taüll
Vall de Boí (Lleida)
Contact: +34 973 69 63 27
Chic apartments for couples or small groups (up to 7).
Price: Apartment for two people starting from $83 in high season.
Which element of the Lleida Pyrenees in Spain would you like to experience yourself and why? Please, leave a comment below.
Disclosure: A big thank you goes to Arallleida tourism board that helped us to organize the trip. As always, our opinions and impressions are our own.